Lisk Feng for BuzzFeed News
Until I was in fifth grade, I never questioned the fact that other kids could pee at school, and I could not. As a kid with a chronic physical disability — a tiny speck of a redhead curled into a wheelchair, slumped on a walker, or sagging between a pair of crutches, depending on the year — the rules were different for me.
I knew that if I had to use the bathroom midday, I would have to go to the nurse’s office and say my stomach hurt so that my mom would take me home. This, in turn, meant missing the entire rest of the school day rather than having her bring me back to class, which would mean facing the possibility of someone asking where I’d gone. That was the deal. From kindergarten on, I looked at each carton of chocolate milk, each astronaut pouch of Capri Sun, with the same calculated thought: Could I afford to drink this now and still stay at school all day with my friends? Probably not. My choice, then, was between meeting my human need for liquid and participating fully in my own education.
I started public school after the passage of the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the 1975 federal law mandating that children with disabilities receive “free appropriate public education,” but a few years before the passage of the American Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 — the civil rights law requiring, among other things, that all public buildings be made accessible to people with disabilities. This legislative gap meant I was fully included in my local public school classrooms, but the classrooms were in schools that had no accessible bathrooms for me to use.
The ADA passed when I was 10. On TV, I saw a girl near my own age crawl out of her wheelchair and up the inaccessible steps of the Capitol building to demonstrate the need for such a monumental piece of legislation. People with disabilities deserved to be included in society as full citizens. We deserved to be treated as human beings. That we weren’t was something I had already internalized as an immovable fact. I cried in front of the TV that night at the thought that there would be an accessible restroom at my school by the time I started sixth grade. I cried because it hadn’t occurred to me, before that moment, that I could belong in this way.
In fact, it wasn’t until several years after I graduated that the schools in my small, wealthy, suburban California public school district made the changes required by the ADA. Though almost 20% of the US population has disabilities, there was, after all, only one who visibly had a disability in my school at the time — and I was not a priority. But in my lifetime, the country has been turning subtly, and slowly, toward inclusion.
I came out at the exact cultural moment when my country became obsessed with where and whether trans people are allowed to use restrooms.
As I’ve aged and society has made a sliver of room for people with disabilities, more and more spaces exist where I can spend less time reading rooms — to choose which version of myself will be the most palatable to the people in it — and more time occupying them. And in my mid-thirties, I was finally comfortable enough to try being my whole self full-time: not the woman with a disability I was assumed to be, but the trans man with a disability that I am. This timing was less than ideal; I came out at the exact cultural moment when my country became obsessed with where and whether trans people are allowed to use restrooms.
Now, with the Trump administration reversing Obama-era protections for transgender students, we have veered sharply toward the overt exclusion of people who share my trans identity. Some state governments have vowed to uphold protections for trans students, but others — as well as dozens of local jurisdictions — have moved to pass their own anti-trans bathroom laws of varying scopes, some reminiscent of North Carolina’s still-controversial HB2.
In the face of policies like these, or finding out that the Supreme Court has decided not to hear trans student Gavin Grimm’s case, I’m transported back to those schools where I was constantly reminded that my existence was an inconvenience. It is a crushing feeling. I thought that being excluded from public restrooms was a relic of my past, not a part of my — and thousands of other trans people’s — futures.
Before I came out as trans, I thought very little about how, in the 20 years since I graduated high school, I have come to take it for granted that most public restrooms will have at least one accessible stall. It’s there for folks who need attendants to help them, or folks who roll up in any form of oversized electric mobility realness, or folks with no limitations save lugging all the bric-a-brac associated with raising young children. These accommodations are common now, so useful to so many people that they’ve become invisible. That’s a miracle I have come to take as a birthright.
While I was obsessively overthinking my gender identity ahead of actually coming out as trans to the lovely, supportive people in my life, I gave a lot of thought to restroom signage. But before that, as a disabled, mainstreamed, accessibility experiment of a man, I had been so wrapped up in figuring out how to be that now-ubiquitous third bathroom symbol — the seated, sexless androgyne — that I completely forgot to evaluate where I fit between the other two. Growing up without guidance for how my particular sort of body fit into our society, I drew my own road map down the path of least resistance. Along that route, disability overshadowed my gender identity in an oddly freeing way.
I had been so wrapped up in figuring out how to be that third bathroom symbol that I completely forgot to evaluate where I fit between the other two.
If you are a female-assigned kid without a disability, with a super short haircut, wearing mostly boys clothes, you stick out as gender non-conforming and therefore threatening to the norm. If you are that same kid with a mobility device, you stick out as probably in need of help or expensive accommodations. (When you don’t ask for either, you are seen as inspiring and heroic.) The mobility device and its assumed story are always what people see first. Mostly, that is all they see.
Anything that would have stuck out as unusual “for a girl” — that my fashion choices were either “extra from Oliver!” or skater punk or a combination of both, that the picture I brought to the hairstylist was from an Archie comic, that my first car was a pickup truck — all of it was overshadowed for other people by my disability. For my part, I didn’t think much of it. I just rolled or limped through life liking what I liked, being who I was, and keeping a low profile when I could.
When I finally did start thinking about my identity with respect to the other two bathroom signs, the realization that I was a man felt obvious. I feel more embarrassment around taking such a long time to figure it out than I ever will about being a trans person. What I do feel about being trans is fear: fear of rejection and fear of violence at the hands of strangers who cannot recognize humanity beyond its most basic models. This fear has made me cautious, alert all over again to the demands of those around me.
I have no strong desire to use either gender’s bathroom; public restrooms are gross and awkward for everyone. But for trans people, right now, they can also be violent. Yes, I am a man; I identify with the faceless person with two sticks protruding from his abdomen rather than the woman with the triangle where her thighs should be. But my self-concept isn’t what’s at stake. I make my restroom choice based on my preference for not being harassed or assaulted. I choose the room that seems less crowded, or the one closer to the gender I think I might be read as on a given day. I make a beeline for the big stall at the end of the row, praying that I go unnoticed.
My first memories of school are of parents demanding that I be removed from their child’s class, certain that my physical difference would take time away from their child’s education. Sometimes they would point at me, or the mobility device I was using at the time. In their view, there was no distinction between the two. I was reduced to a disruptive object, an unfair demand on the people who “belonged” in the room: the teacher, the “normal” pupils. Though none of the kids ever seemed to share this view, I learned to get out of the way whenever their parents were present.
Writing it down like this, it reads as more tragic than it felt at the time. I wanted to be in those schools where it was constantly implied that I didn’t belong. My friends were there, and I loved my classes. I knew enough of the world to understand that surviving in those halls was my only means to living an included adult life. It was at once an awful choice and an easy choice.
Every year, the number of children with disabilities who have to face that same choice goes down. The change is still happening slowly; there is no agency that collects data on public schools and ADA compliance on a national scale, but a 2015 federal investigation found that as many as 83% of New York City public elementary schools are still not fully accessible. Yet steadily, because of federal mandate, often paired with legal action from within the community, more and more spaces are becoming accessible to the whole public. But on the verge of feeling included in one way as a matter of course, I find myself living in a country bending toward a vile new kind of exclusion.
In school, my friends were the people who looked at my disability and past it at the same time. They saw it as it is, neither inherently bad nor good, a concrete part of a whole person. My gender identity is the same: an innate fact as I navigate a world designed without me in mind. My disability has made me good at this, and still quite willing to do a tremendous amount of work to put other people at ease.
The bathroom bills and the rollbacks of legal protections for trans students are different. I don’t know how to convince these lawmakers and their supporters that I have a right to exist safely in public spaces, or how to help them see my existence for the normal, non-threatening, frequently pretty average kind of life that it is. Still, this very basic work of humanizing people like me — people lumped into the dangerous cultural group of the “other” — has to be done.
As a small white man with a disability, I am still protected by a degree of unearned privilege. Even in the most vivid, bigoted, transphobic imagination, my physical presence projects about the same level of perceived physical menace as a Raggedy Andy doll. Trans women and girls, and all trans people of color, are not read the same way. They are significantly more likely to encounter conflict and danger in public restrooms. This fact speaks to the stories we are told about the menace of the other; bathrooms have long been battlegrounds for segregation. That no trans person has ever attacked a cisgender person in a restroom has nothing to do with the real goal of these laws. They are a continuation of the fight to control who is and is not acceptable within polite society.
I can’t bear to watch passively as a new generation of children confront the same awful choice between their needs and their education.
The inaccessibility of the bathrooms in my schools, all those years, was a constant reminder: My existence was strange and frightening to some people around me. If I wanted to be in public spaces, I would need to compromise my basic bodily needs. I would need to accommodate a world in which — despite the fact that we’ve always been here — people like me were just barely arriving as afterthoughts. And I can’t bear to watch passively as a new generation of children confront the same awful choice between their needs and their education.
In 2015, the National Center for Transgender Equality undertook a large, comprehensive study of the lives of trans people. They found that 31% of trans people have avoided eating or drinking so that they would not need to use public bathrooms. Many children, then, are already making exactly the same choice that I made. They are learning to deny their humanity to preserve their rightful places within their communities.
In my school, even as the leadership chose to ignore me, my friends and my favorite teachers — though they had no power to remodel the buildings — did everything they could to create space for my mind to thrive. I have come to understand the future not as an abstract concept, but rather as a very concrete set of seemingly small decisions made in the interactions between each individual member of society. We choose how to accommodate each other every day.
I am tired of people in positions of authority excluding other people because they seem too disabled or too queer to be considered fully human. I am tired of having to know when to hide my gender identity or de-emphasize my disability. I am tired of the idea that going about my life fully hydrated is an unreasonable expectation. But larger than this personal exhaustion is a deep well of anger at the thought that other people — children — are being forced to make those accommodations for a culture that is actively denying them their right to occupy public spaces.
The slow progress I’ve witnessed as a person with a disability was something I hoped would continue to expand. I believe that the future can be a more inclusive place. But without systemic protection from the top, supported by caring and proactive individuals all the way down, it will never arrive for all of us.
Christian McMahon is a writer from Los Angeles. He is working on his first novel.